Research published by the CIPD last month found that almost one-in-three people have suffered with poor mental health while having been in employment. In this article, Rachel Suff, Employment Relations Adviser, argues that organisations should start to take a preventative approach to employee’s mental wellbeing, as opposed to a merely reactive one. She also examines the role of the line manager in supporting an employee’s mental health on a day-to-day basis.

The broader appreciation by many employers of holistic health and well-being approaches that address the psychosocial, as well as the physical, risks affecting people’s health is to be welcomed. However, our new research shows that there is some way to go before the majority of organisations develop a robust framework to support people’s mental health at work.

The importance of supporting people’s mental health at work has slowly but surely climbed up the public policy agenda over the past few years. There is very good reason for the increased focus on the state of people’s mental health – the most-recent large-scale survey of adults living in England found that nearly one person in four (23%) had at least one psychiatric disorder. It seems clear that a much higher proportion of people in work must be suffering from common mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression, than has probably been assumed by most employers.

However, the CIPD’s 2015 Absence Management Survey, in partnership with Simplyhealth, found that two-fifths (41%) of organisations claimed an increase in reported mental health problems in the past 12 months. This trend is not surprising: complex changes in the world of work and society mean that individuals are now at risk from a range of organisational and environmental pressures. The increase in stress and mental health conditions as a cause of sickness absence in UK organisations has also helped to increase the focus on mental well-being.

It is against this backdrop that the CIPD commissioned YouGov to survey over 2,000 employees in June 2016 to identify their experiences and attitudes about mental health in the workplace.

The state and impact of people’s mental health

Overall, across the UK, almost three out of four employees (74%) describe their current mental health as good or very good and one-fifth believe it is moderate (21%). Just 5% of employees say their mental health is poor or very poor. However, a much higher proportion have experienced poor mental health at some stage of their life: in response to the question, ‘have you ever experienced mental health problems while in employment?’, three respondents in ten (31%) said that they had. Women are less likely to describe their mental health currently as very good (28%) compared with men (33%).

It is of interest that 30% of employees at the young end of the age spectrum (18–24) say they have experienced poor mental health, an increase from 18% in a similar survey we conducted in 2011.

Half (50%) of respondents who describe their mental health as poor have taken time off work for this reason but, conversely, half (49%) of those experiencing poor mental health have never taken time off because of it. As well as challenging the assumption that an individual with a mental health problem will necessarily experience a significant level of sickness absence, this finding highlights the importance of employers having in place a good framework to support people’s mental health on a day-to-day basis at work.

It’s not surprising that individuals who are experiencing poor mental health find that it affects their behaviour if they are at work; just 4% say that poor mental health does not affect their work performance with the main impact is finding it difficult to concentrate (85% of respondents), followed by it taking longer to perform tasks (64%) and difficulty in making decisions (54%).

Employers could improve their support for mental health and disclosure

In all, less than half of respondents (46%) report that their organisation supports employees who experience mental health problems very well or fairly well, while one in five (20%) say that their organisation supports such employees not very well or not at all. Public and voluntary sector organisations are far more likely to support employees who experience mental health problems according to our respondents.

Our survey also shows that well under half (44%) of employees would feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager. Creating an open culture around mental health is the first fundamental step in raising awareness about mental health issues and fostering an environment where people feel comfortable to disclose their own experience of poor mental health: if individuals don’t disclose their mental health problem at work, they will not receive any organisational support if it is available.

Line managers are key

There are a number of measures that employers could put in place to promote good mental health and support people who experience poor mental health, including access to occupational health services, counselling, and phased return-to-work. The role of line managers is also crucial and it’s disappointing that employees report that just 10% of their employers provide training for line managers in how to manage and support people with mental health issues.

Much of the day-to-day responsibility for managing the mental health of employees falls on line managers, including implementing stress management initiatives and encouraging those with problems at work or home to seek appropriate help and support. Training in this area is vital to ensure that managers have the confidence and competence to implement policies sensitively and fairly, and can hold difficult conversations with individuals when needed. Training line managers to have an open and supportive dialogue with staff, and having the knowledge to signpost people to specialist sources of mental health support if necessary, are fundamental elements of how an employer should address the psychological aspects of supporting people’s health and well-being at work.

If people have good mental health, and feel supported during times of poor mental health, it is not a leap to assume that they will feel more motivated, engaged and productive at work. The urgency with which employers should be addressing this agenda will only increase, and not abate, in the years to come.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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